When I first started IT Consulting in August 1999 I encouraged clients to keep dynamic content on websites so they can provide ongoing value to visitors. I tried to set a good example by writing daily journal entries, which I did without missing until 2002. Nowadays, my "blog" consists of thoughts from work as an SAP Consultant, travel and transportation, and technology.
Good For: Refreshing minimalism. It has been a decade since I have driven a vehicle without power mirrors. Thanks to the Yaris, I got a refresher on all the little unnecessary features that become standard on even the cheapest cars now, adding weight and complexity. It's really not that hard to push the mirror in place just like you would the interior mirror. The steering wheel is just a steering wheel. If you want to change the radio volume then you will have to touch the radio. And it is a fine radio for an entry level car, complete with a big touch-screen, Bluetooth, iPod controls, and HD Radio. Windshield wiper? Only one blade needed.
Compromises: The only thing missing is a minimalist manual transmission, which seems to have disappeared from the entire 5-door lineup for 2016. Instead, we just have an old 4-speed automatic. It responds well and performs just like a good ol' 4L60, and is even reasonably fuel efficient. The price is also not very minimalist: $15,995 for a car that doesn't even have a remote or cruise control.
Overall reaction - None: The Yaris is Toyota's entry level vehicle. To me, Kias and the Nissan Versa offer more car for less money, but consumers may find the general feeling of higher quality worth the Toyota premium. At minimum, it is worth noting that even Toyota's cheapest car is efficient with interior space and will accomodate 4 adults.
Good For: Good for what? Good Question. The VQ35DE sings when you open her up, but is there really anything that this minivan is particularly good at?
Compromises: The tall vehicle looks big, but why is it not as spacious inside as the Sienna and Sedona? Handling is pretty sketchy. Why did it feel like the struts were blown already with only 29k miles on the clock? Rental car abuse might be the answer, but is it worth noting that this is the first rental I have ever driven with this problem? This is the only van with a CVT, but does the thirsty VQ35DE ruin any potential efficiency gains?
Overall reaction - Thumb down: The Quest is not particularly lacking in equipment, with typical minivan features like three zone climate control, power sliding doors, and Bluetooth. But it is not as good at being a van as the others I have driven, which get the job done better.
Good For: Proper touch screen laptop. Touch screens are becoming more common on laptops now, but most of them tend to be retrofits of a regular laptop form factor, preventing them from ever being used like a tablet in the most mobile situations. Most manufacturers have been offering detachable keyboards to present hybrid laptop/tablet solutions, but the Yoga saves you from working every day on a laptop that is designed to break into two pieces. The first unique Yoga move is the double-jointed hinge, which allows you to fold the screen so it is flipped all the way against the bottom of the laptop. It's a simple way to convert a laptop to a tablet, except the keyboard is now on the bottom. How do you prevent the keyboard from getting hammered with inputs from all the things that touch the bottom of a tablet, like fingers and table surfaces? The second Yoga move is a keyboard frame that lifts and physically locks out the action. All this adds up to a laptop form factor that is thinner than other Thinkpads, while still cramming in about twice the battery life of the X230T.
Compromises: The keyboard on the upper right changed again; the insert button has been deleted. It's not that I think I will miss the Insert key much, but the Home and End buttons have shifted to the right. It appears this is to space out the F-keys and make the Esc key bigger, but I had no issues with the old design. Other removals make sense in achievng the modern thin profile. The regular RJ45 network port has been dropped, and video output is mini-HDMI. Adapters are easy to attach for days when I am visiting customers still stuck in 2008. This is the first Thinkpad I have had with no detatchable battery. Hopefully, the battery holds charge after daily usage cycles as well as Apple products do, as replacements seem to be more complicated than Thinkpads used to be.
Overall reaction - Two thumb up: The new Yoga form factor is designed from the ground up for hybrid keyboard and tablet usage scenarios. There are no compromises typical of adapting a traditional laptop form factor. The power button, screen rotation lock, and power buttons are on the side, so they are accessible even in tablet mode. The stylus is on the corner, which seems like a more space efficient location. The screen is a beautiful 1920x1080, a lot of pixels for a 12" screen, and it responds to my finger as well as an iPad. Lenovo kept the TrackPoint and TrackPad combination that actually makes sense, not the awful minimalist one in the latest T series. I suppose it doesn't matter what Lenovo does with old designs as long as they do a good job on new ones like this. Honestly, I had already started ordering a Surface Pro 3, but was glad to find a solid Lenovo that works better for daily use.
Good For: Promoting progress. The 500L drives about as different as it looks, and reflects some interesting new engineering that has been reserved for luxury cars. Under the hood, there is a 1.4L turbo engine that does away with the traditional throttle body valve, relying completely on the "MultiAir" variable value timing and lift to control air flow into the engine. The system offers better performance and superior efficiency. Drop the automatic transmission into drive or reverse and the first thing you notice is that there is no torque converter to apply creeping power at idle. You have to give it some gas and then it goes like a computer-operated manual transmission clutch. Gear ratios are as short as what you would expect on a manual transmission, since we can no longer leverage the torque converter at lower revs. The transmission's affinity for higher RPMs minimizes turbo lag and accentuates the nice exhaust note. It has good tendencies to be in the gear I would be in if I was operating a stick shifter, and I am always aware because this is the only car I know that displays which gear it is in, even in fully automatic mode.
Compromises: Typical tradeoffs to riding the bleeding edge apply, as we don't have much real world data on how the new MultiAir system holds up in long term reliability. MultiAir's hydraulic design is even a bit different from the electro-magnetic system that BMW has used for some time now. Opting for the manual transmission takes you off the edge a little, which is still the option I would choose. I am surprised automatic engine start-stop is not available, especially since the clutch transmission can accomodate this easier than the traditional automatic.
Overall reaction - Thumb up: At first glance, the idea of stretching the design of the 500 supermini to a tall 5-door contradicts its heritage. But the 500L considers the modern requirements for an economy car, and dares to promote new ideas in automotive engineering to the masses. Unlike other small cars the 500L accomodates 4 very comfortably. The rear seats are huge with recline and fore-aft adjustments to optimize cargo space behind it. Fiat even brings us convex segments to the side mirrors, which is already a safety requirement in countries like Belgium. At minimum, the 500L is a memorable driving experience. Even the one touch lane change turn signal blinks 5 times instead of the 3 that other cars do.
Wednesday, 21st of October, 2015
Monday, 19th of October, 2015
Friday, 16th of October, 2015
Wednesday, 14th of October, 2015
Friday, 9th of October, 2015
Friday, 2nd of October, 2015
Good For: Laptop with disfunctional input devices - Lenovo has dropped the optical drive from the T-series to make it thinner, though it is not as thin as many other laptops these days. A touch screen is now available, but the screen still has a classic 2-hinge attachment preventing it from being used as a tablet. The 68+ battery bulges from the bottom, lifting the back for a more comfortable typing position. It will run the laptop for as long as I might want to work in one day: at least 12.5 hours with wi-fi on.
Compromises: The trackpad is completely ruined. All the buttons are gone, so if still use the trackpoint, your "buttons" are now just touch-sensitive zones defined inside the trackpad. It often does not respond correctly, regardless of whether you just touch the zone or press hard enough to get the tactile feedback of the entire trackpad working as a gigantic button. Lenovo went the wrong way with the keyboard, as well. Dedicated buttons for volume are gone, and the F-keys now serve as multimedia controls and the F-keys require using Fn.
Overall reaction: Two thumbs down: I have preferred the Thinkpad line of laptops for over a decade, but the only thing to like about the new T-series is the battery life. They even changed the power adapter, making it incompatible with my current practice of having Thinkpad power adapters all over the house to use regardless of what room I am working in. At least in an office, on a docking station, I don't have to even touch these input devices.
Good For: Jeep builds another car. I drove the Patriot last year, and Jeep has offered the mechanically identical Compass alongside the Patriot for their first run of a car-based SUV. The only noticeable differences inside and out between the two cars is the body styling. The same "Freedom Drive I" 4x4 system delivers the same, respectable off-road capabilities as the Patriot. Versatility also seems equivalent, and the Compass also has a deep compartment to accomodate a full sized spare.
Compromises: I liked the CVT's optimization of power, but Jeep has switched most trims to use a Hyundai-sourced 6-speed automatic. It's better than many other automatics, but I'm glad a manual transmission is also still available. None of these options mask the Jeep's fuel efficiency, which is worse than some larger 6-cylinder vehicles.
Overall reaction - None: I like the Jeep Patriot as a fun and affordable off-road capable vehicle. The Compass price points north of the Patriot, however, and is more expensive even when equipped with identical options.
Good For: A leap to the present. The 10th generation Impala finally grows back to a full sized platform, with proper rear legroom for the class. The Chevrolet flagship sedan is equipped with the usual GM gadgetry, and the LTZ trim I drove had blind spot monitoring and lane departure warnings. The two tone dashboard accentuated lines that made me feel like the driver and passenger were wrapped in individual cocoons. The Impala distinguishes itself as being the only car I've driven that reminds me of a Jaguar D-Type racer. The curvy dashboard was unique and didn't bother me, nor does it seem to be a problem for most buyers since the Impala jumps back up to the number one selling full sized car with this redesign.
Compromises: Everything I liked about the old Impala has been carved away. There is no front bench seat, and the 300hp V6 requires going up to a $31k trim level. The parking brake is an electronic switch. At one point there were too many cars moving around for the collision control system to process and it gave a false alarm and deactivated itself.
Overall reaction - Thumb down to the new definition of a full sized sedan. It takes the shape of a big car, but is less comfortable than it looks. Speaking of Jaguar, there are some reasonably preserved old XJ-12s out there that could eat the Impala for lunch...
Good For: Mazda Copycat. Essentially every automaker has jumped on the crossover vehicle trend and spawned a variety of tall wagons based on compact car platforms. As a lower volume manufacturer, Mazda has been slower and more selective in how they go about this. This is actually good for the Mazda brand in the United States, which seems to be appropriately focused on affordable sports cars like the Miata instead of carrying trucks and SUVs. The CX-5 rides on the same platform as the latest Mazda 3, and also copies more design elements of the 5-door car than what we typically see within a brand. The association gives Mazda strong links to start pumping marketing brand names such as SkyActiv, Kodo, and Soul of Motion through the lineup.
Compromises: There is nothing revolutionary about a compact Mazda crossover, despite all the new words introduced. Fuel efficiency is average in this segment, at best. I'm not sure which buzz word is aligned with the electronic parking brake, but please leave that one out of other cars. A button also requests the 6-speed automatic's sport mode, but you have to plan ahead. The owner's manual lists a set of conditions that prevent sport mode, including steering input. The CX-5 rejected my request when I was in a cloverleaf interchange; so much for getting into a lower gear in exiting the corner.
Overall reaction - Thumb down: I liked all the Mazdas I have driven over the last decade, including models from previous eras like the Protoge. However, I don't like the CX-5; of all the crossovers I have driven this is my least favorite. The Mazda 3 variation that I do like, the Mazda 5, is being discontinued. Mazda's lineup had always been attractive to me because they were willing to design and offer cars that nobody else would build. The compact crossover is a car that almost every brand has tried already.
Good For: Modern minivan. Ford sticks to the original receipe for creating a minivan, building the Transit Connect on the front wheel drive car platform used by cars like the Focus. The boxy body creates tons of interior space at the driver's seat, but the platform retains car-like handling. The handbrake is even where it belongs on a regular car. Many other good details have been added to this latest implementation of the minivan, such as a large shelf above the sun visors. For years people have been loading papers, CDs, nose wipers, and what not on their visors - might as well create a space there to support this behaviour.
Compromises: Front end can still get squirrely from the torque steer, depite power coming from a modest 169hp 2.5L 4-cylinder. 6-speed automatic works well in "S" mode and gets the job done.
Overall reaction - Thumb up: I drove a long wheelbase "wagon" configuration which is good for seating 7. The combination of car-based handling and versatility was refreshing. Unlike 3-row SUVs, the individual seats in the 3rd row slide fore and aft, which is useful for optimizing leg room vs cargo room behind the seat. Ford also offers double "barn yard doors" style rear access, which I think is better than trying to work an enormous rear hatch. Extra room and features distinguish the Connect from the other car-like MPV on the market, the Mazda 5. However, the price premium is significant, and you can cross shop the Connect with lot of 7-seater SUVs north of that $26k base price.
Good For: Just another 4DFWDC. Nissan no longer sticks a "4DSC" decal on the Maxima, but they have styled the car to appeal to those wanting the appearance of a 4-door sports car. Despite the appearance of a wide rear track, the Maxima is still a 4-door front-wheel-drive car underneath, based on the same platform as the Altima. The CVT does offer a sport mode that responds well to requests for more power, while still dropping to lower revs when putting around town for city driving efficiency.
Compromises: The practicality I associate with a 4DSC was not considered when Nissan tuned this 290hp version of the VQ35DE. Premium fuel is recommended, and highway efficiency is noticeably worse than other V6 sedans, including the Altima with the same motor. It's not worth going through all that for 20 horsepower, not to mention the thousands extra on the vehicle price when you compare the Maxima with the Altima 3.5 in equivalent trims.
Overall reaction - Thumb down: Nissan seems to be saving the rear wheel drive cars for the premium Infiniti brand. The Altima can be optioned up to be quite nice, so that leaves limited product space for a flagship Nissan sedan. Perhaps this returns the Maxima to its roots, when it was just a special version of the Nissan Bluebird.
Good For: Non-hybrid Prius. Toyota has finally brought a lot of the technology that has been standard on the Prius down to the Corolla. When I first sat down in the latest Corolla, all the electronics were where I was used to finding it in the Prius, from Bluetooth pairing and phone controls down to the customization settings to turn off beeps for remote locking. The CVT transmission helps achieve a Prius-like fuel efficiency of over 40 mpg on the highway. The 6" display even has a "Car" button that displays an efficiency per minute chart like the Prius. For those who don't buy the false economy of the heavy and expensive hybrid system, the Corolla is the sensible car on this platform.
Compromises: The Corolla starts at $17k and the LE package I drive is in the 18s, which is a good deal compared to the more expensive Prius. The prices for this "small crown" are still higher competing sedans, however. The Smart Key option, which is the only way around Toyota's silly remote locking behaviour, is found in packages over $21k. At least they have thrown manual transmission guys a bone with a 6-speed option on the top "S-Plus" trim.
Overall reaction - Thumb up: Toyota is no longer resting on their laurels and brought the Corolla up to modern standards. They executed well, paying attention to details that add up to a distinctively nicer driving experience. The hand brake is where it should be, instead of the Prius' foot pedal. "Sport" mode is an offset gate on the shifter, exactly where it should be, and brings the CVT's revs up for better performance around town. Below Sport is "B" mode, carried over from the Prius, which is effective at keeping the revs high for Interstate merging maneuvers.
Good For: Das billig Auto. When the 4th generation Jetta was launched about 16 years ago, it boasted a distinctive and stunning upscale interior that set it apart from all other inexpensive compact cars in the United States. Some of the competition has played some catching up since then, but there is a distinctively German flavour to the execution of details that only Volkswagen has brought down to this price range. Even the base stereo has a wide, easy to use screen, which happens to also receive FM stations noticeably better than all the dozens of other cars I've driven up and down I-85. The 170hp 5-cylinder is also very lively and adds to the great handling of the 3000-pound car.
Compromises: While previous Jettas showcase super German engineering, the current one is beginning to reveal German frugality. Fit and finish of the seats and dashboard has dropped to Playskool levels, and is pretty much an insult to anyone who has enjoyed the former cars. All this cost cutting is supposed to help VW sell more cars, but cheapening a car without lowering the price may be the reason why they have completely missed their growth targets in the United States.
Overall reaction - Thumb up: At least the latest Jetta does a good job of maximizing interior space on the compact platform. Rear seat room is much better than previous Jettas, and is a significant selling point against Jetta wannabe's like the Chevy Cruze. VW is also still offering us the wagon, with a TDI engine option and manual transmissions at all trim levels. Perhaps VW is attempting to re-define the Jetta as cheap, practical transportation, and saving the nicer refinements for those willing to spring for the Passat. Thumb up to Volkswagen for boldly continuing to try to sell European configurations to Americans. The enthusiasts will continue to gobble them up, and one day it may catch on.
Thursday, 12th of February, 2015
Good For: Maximizing the subcompact. The little Opel Mokka rides on a GM subcompact car platform, and was great for maneuvering through the narrower European streets, parking lots, and garages. The parking assist sensors both front and rear were interesting, but unnecessary. In spite of the small footprint, the tall crossover body maximized interior space for passengers, and rear seat room is impressive for a car this size. Trunk space is more in line with that of a 5-door hatch, but the setup provides nice versatility. GM electronic toys also attempt to maximize efficiency and the driving experience. This is the first car I've driven with automatic engine start-stop. It works in conjunction with the manual transmission, and shuts off the motor when you have the clutch out in neutral sitting at a traffic light. As soon as you push the clutch in, the engine starts on it's own. Despite being a tall crossover, it is not too heavy and a fun little car to toss around, even with snow tires. This is also the first time I've been able to select a rental car with snow tires and a manual transmission. Rentaling cars in Europe is much more fun than in the US.
Compromises: It's too bad you can't select a manual transmission for this car in the United States, as usual. You see the Opel Mokka running around as a Buick Encore here, and a cheaper Chevrolet version, the Trax, is available starting this year.
Overall reaction - Thumb up: Introducing the subcompact crossover to the GM lineup makes sense. The extra comfort and versatility can easily soften the blow of downsizing to the newer, smaller, and more efficient cars. The Trax has way more room than the Cruze, despite being lighter. The only powertrain option in the US is the 1.4L turbo and a 6-speed, though there is nothing wrong with the less powerful naturally aspirated 1.6L in the Mokka I drove. It is good enough around town, especially mated to a manual transmission. On my first trip on the motorway, I picked an 80s VW to follow in the traffic flow and found myself doing 4300 rpm in top gear. This wasn't really an issue with this engine, and I was still getting over 30 mpg doing 130 km/hr. At least I didn't have to worry about downshifting on the motorway. Belgians have it right when it comes to safety. Instead of focusing so much on speed, they have laws requiring that all cars must be equipped refletive jackets, warning triangle, first aid kit, and fire extinguisher. Maybe this will motivate me to finally get around to mounting one in my car.
Good For: Two hands on the wheel. You can't help but keep both hands on the wheel when driving the Mazda 2. There is no center armrest, and the only 2 comfort features that can possibly distract you are a radio and basic HVAC. Get the manual transmission if you are looking for more things to do. There are cupholders, but don't bother drinking while driving at speed. This little lightweight car bounces so much that you are likely to just slosh the contents of your cup into your lap.
Compromises: $14,720 is a lot for a tiny car that doesn't even have cruise control. The little car can be fun to toss around, but it is still only a 100 hp front wheel drive car.
Overall reaction - None: Those who plan to strip the car down to a B-spec racer may appreciate that this car doesn't have extra components. But why doesn't the car's price reflect the level of equipment? If you don't drive stick this car makes no sense at all. The 4-speed automatic has to work hard to keep the little 1.5L engine in the power band, and fuel efficiency is awful for a 2300 pound hatchback.